Mark Twain had once described a legendary Mississippi River roustabout, Mike Fink, as "half man, half alligator," the Vagabond remembered. That certainly caught his character right,--a leathery-hides roughneck, quick with a knife, ready to let you have it with hands, feet, fingernails, anti teeth if he didn't like the way you shook your dice.
And when he voted, he probably voted twice, and for the Democrats. Vag laughed. Mike had come from some place like the Tennessee back country, most likely, where they still talked about Andy Jackson and the way he cleaned things up in Washington when he was elected. In Tennessee a fellow who didn't own a big spread of buckshot land and had to scratch along in the pines some-where didn't see things just the same way as a Virginia Whig. So Mike Fink was a Democrat.
The Vagabond had heard about Mike in a history lecture last December. Old Mike was only one of a long line of memorable individuals who had marched before him in that lecture series. Indian fighters like James Robertson and Sevier, and Wilkinson, who drew a general's and a spy's pay at the same time, were others who had excited Vag's imagination.
Those lectures did not deserve the name of lectures, which at Harvard had come to be a synonym for dullness. The scenes of flatboats on the Ohio, and Germans and Yankees moving into the North-west side by side to carve out Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, were not lecture scenes. Nor were the discussions about what drove these people on into the West. The vision of free lands, cattle, and finally wheat drew them like a magnet, and drew their sons across the Mississippi and onto the plains. And the people sitting in the wagons which creaked through forests of prairie grass were interesting people, who had real thoughts and misgivings in their minds. It took a man who understood and loved his fellows to recreate these simple people of the past, the Vag said to himself.
And the lecturer is such a man, the Vag thought. His ability as a scholar has never lessened his interest in the people with whom he deals in the present--his students and assistants--any more than it has hindered him from comprehending deeply the human being in the historical past. Only a teacher with a sense of humor and a sympathy with his fellow beings could ever make his listeners respond to history so fully. Behind his quiet, precise voice is a mind and personality which has gained not only the admiration, but also the deep friendship of those students who have heard his lectures this year and others years.
And as the years go past upon his voice, carrying with them the rustle of the buffalo grass, the song of the loggers and the boatmen, and the Civil War's distant thunder; the Vag sees the gleam of the frontiersman's rifle and bridle fall to the ground and become the glint of the first railroad track across America. On either side of the rails the corn and wheat springs up with the houses, and the Indian mounts his pony and rides away forever.
This morning Frederick Merk gives the last lecture for the year in his course "History of the Westward Movement," at 10 o'clock, in Harvard 1.